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Everybody Dies Famous In A Small Town – Especially My Barber

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For those of us that had the pleasure of growing up in a small town, we understand the truth of Miranda Lambert’s hit song – “Everybody Dies Famous In A Small Town.”

She tells the tale of a small town life that lacks anonymity and values what some may mistakenly dismiss as the “little things.”

They say that life is so much sweeter
Through the telephoto lens of fame
Around here you get just as much attention
Cheerin’ at the high school football game

I dreamed of going to Nashville
Put my money down and placed my bet
But I just got the first buck of the season
I made the front page of the Turner Town Gazette

Whether you’re late for church
Or you’re stuck in jail
Hey, word’s going to get around
Everybody dies famous in a small town

The genius of the song is that it captures the tension of every little town.  Community often beats out anonymity.  People live up close and personal.  Secrets are harder to keep secret.  Our neighbors know our stories.

Our kindergarten graduations.  The big hit at the ball game.  The marriage to our high school sweetheart.  The birth of our child.  The weekend we bailed that child out of jail.  The problems in our marriage.  Our battles with substance abuse.  The loss of a job.  The unexpected death of a child.  The birth of our grandchildren.  The death of our high school sweetheart.

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Our collective stories make up the narrative of our small communities.  And because neighbors know each other stories, the absence of every life leaves a tangible void in the community’s collective narrative.

I once tried a case with a great lawyer and close friend who hailed from the small town of Marksville, Louisiana.  It was a sad case wherein a young woman was widowed when her husband was killed in a preventable workplace accident.  The case was to be tried to a jury in the tiny community of Napoleonville, Louisiana.

As we prepared for trial, it was decided that I would handle the closing argument and my friend would handle the opening statement.  The day of the trial arrived and my friend delivered a poignant opening statement.  In speaking about the loss of this husband and father, he told the jury about the words painted on the big water tower that overlooks his little community of Marksville – “Welcome to Marksville – Where Everbody Is Somebody.”  He went on to beautifully tell the jury about how this husband and father was indeed “somebody.”

I couldn’t help but think of that water tower when I learned of the unexpected death of my childhood barber in Natchitoches – Mr. Thad.  Mr. Thad passed away over the summer at the age of 82 as a result of tragic plane crash.

For many years of my life, I saw Mr. Thad just about every three weeks.  God blessed the men in my family with thick, unruly hair.  While we’ve never feared baldness, we’ve always known that our hair was best kept short and under control.  For years, Mr. Thad tamed it with the tools of his trade.

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Despite seeing Mr. Thad on a pretty regular basis, I’m not sure if he actually knew my name.  He knew my face.  He knew my hair.  But I don’t know if he knew my name.  I was usually greeted with a smile, a kind nod of the head, and a “Hey Bub.”  I’m not sure how many young guys in our town were named “Bub” to Mr. Thad.  But I’d venture to guess that there were a lot of us.

The shop was minimalist before it was cool to be minimalist.  A couple of barber chairs.  A few more chairs for folks to wait in while Mr. Thad worked on others.  Everyone’s excess hair was strewn about the floor.  It stayed that way until it slowed down enough for Mr. Thad to sweep it up.  Sweep.  Not vacuum.  I’ve noticed that my current barber has a vacuum contraption that sucks up the hair.  Technology is everywhere I guess.

As I’d wait for my turn in his chair, men and boys from throughout our community would come and go.  I’d listen to conversations that ran the gambit – family, farming, food, rodeoing, politics, trucks, boats, weather, fishing, hunting, religion, women, and sports.  Mr. Thad had the gift of keeping a conversation alive with the fewest of words.  I’m not sure if he ever truly offered an opinion on any of the topics discussed.  Thinking back on it, he didn’t really participate that much in the conversation.  He was busy cutting our hair.  But he always seemed to be the passive moderator of these talks.

As an introverted high school boy, I never dreamed of actually participating.  An occasional “yes sir” or “no sir” to a direct question was just about all I contributed.  I was completely satisfied with just listening and learning.

High school graduation came and went.  I moved off to Arkansas for college.  I’m sure I got haircuts in Arkansas.  I don’t exactly remember where.  But when I’d return home to visit my family, I’d always try and stop by the barbershop to get a quick cut from Mr. Thad.

The introverted high school boy had grown into an introverted college boy and I was still content to quietly listen and learn from the conversations that flowed through the shop.  But I noticed that with each trip home, I began to listen a little more closely and analyze the conversation with a more discerning ear.  I started to flirt with the idea of actually participating in one of these talks.

I remember the day when it finally happened.  I came home on a Thursday night for a long weekend.  I went to see Mr. Thad the next morning for a quick haircut.  As a sat waiting for my turn, another customer steered the morning talk towards politics.

As my fellow customer railed against a particular political issue, I toyed with the idea of actually speaking up and offering the opposing view.  I didn’t know the other customer.  There weren’t too many folks in the shop that morning.  Would I be speaking out of turn?  Probably.  Would I be dismissed as just another naïve young college kid?  Definitely.  After all, I was.

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Despite these concerns, I went for it.  I spoke up.  I offered the opposing view.  The fellow customer and I went back and forth a couple of times.  I don’t really remember what was said.  But he obviously was not persuaded by my argument.

I don’t remember if Mr. Thad said anything.  He probably was not persuaded by my argument either.  But I do remember this.  For a split second, Mr. Thad looked up from the customer whose hair he was cutting and flashed me a quick grin.  It could be interpreted many ways.  Maybe it was a sympathy grin – an acknowledgment that I had waded into an argument that I had no shot of winning in his shop.  But maybe it was something else.  I guess I’ll never know.

Mr. Thad continued cutting my hair whenever I’d come home to visit my family.  I ventured off to law school, got married, and slowly started my own family.  Trips back home became less frequent and eventually Mr. Thad stopped cutting my hair.  Prior to his death, I probably had not seen him in at least five years.  But Mr. Thad and his barbershop stayed with me over the years.

Many times in my professional career, I have called upon the lessons I learned in that little barbershop.

-The power possessed by a seemingly passive moderator in an important conversation.

-The value of truly listening to a witness as they offer their testimony.

-The realization that some of the brightest folks around opt for Wrangler jeans over flashy suits.

-The fundamental truth that sometimes you’ve just got to be brave enough to speak up and offer the opposing view.

Trial after trial, I have found myself preparing and presenting my case as if the jury consisted of the men and women that filtered through Mr. Thad’s barbershop.

Folks in Natchitoches live up close and personal.  Their lives bump up against each other.  Their stories mix and mash.  I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to know Mr. Thad and experience his shop.

Miranda Lambert is right.  Everybody dies famous in a small town.  But especially my barber.